Friday, July 30, 2010

Lt Gen Peter Walls (RIP)

Lieutenant General Peter Walls, who has died aged 83, may go down in history as one of the most successful of counter-insurgency commanders. Yet even he could not prevail in an unwinnable war against nationalists determined to overturn minority white rule and transform Rhodesia into Zimbabwe.

Born in what was then the self-governing British colony of Southern Rhodesia, Walls went to Britain in his teens during the second world war and entered the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst at the very end of hostilities. He then joined the Black Watch regiment and saw service in Somalia before resigning and returning home.

Walls was commissioned into the Northern Rhodesia Regiment, and in 1951, when he was just 24, he was promoted to captain and appointed second in command of a new unit of scouts raised for the British campaign against Chinese-backed communists in Malaya, an emergency that led to a unique defeat for the anti-colonialist forces.

As the unit was largely made up of Rhodesians, the British decided that it should also be led by a Rhodesian, and Walls was promoted to major. The unit was renamed C (Rhodesia) Squadron, SAS. His two years in Malaya, for which he was made MBE (military) in 1953, was invaluable experience for his later role fighting guerrillas.

The squadron was disbanded in 1953. Walls embarked on a series of staff appointments before being sent to the British army's staff college at Camberley, Surrey. In 1964, as a lieutenant colonel, he was given command of the 1st battalion, Rhodesian Light Infantry.

A year later, white resistance to the idea of black rule hardened and Ian Smith, who had ousted Winston Field as prime minister of Rhodesia in April 1964, made his unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) at the 11th minute of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1965 – a bombastic parody of the 1918 armistice and the American declaration of independence. The British publicly threw away a major bargaining chip by declaring that there would be no armed intervention, not least because Harold Wilson's Labour government feared a revolt.

Walls now knew that he would not have to fight British troops as a senior officer in the army of a pariah state unrecognised outside the white redoubt in southern Africa. He was committed to the UDI. Promoted to brigadier, he next served as commander, 2 brigade. From there he became chief of staff to the army commander as a major-general, and was appointed army commander in 1972.

Walls and his men faced a divided enemy – Robert Mugabe's Zanla (Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army), mainly from the majority Shona tribe, and Joshua Nkomo's more effective Zipra (Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army) guerrillas, mainly Ndebele. Rhodesian troops staged raid after raid on guerrilla bases beyond Rhodesia's borders. In 1975 Mozambique and Angola gained independence from Portugal, and pressure mounted on South Africa, the sine qua non of Smith's survival. The white redoubt was crumbling.

As the struggle came to a head in 1977, Walls was made commander of combined operations, controlling 45,000 men, not only in the army but also the air force and the police. Man for man, they were far superior in training, discipline and equipment to their foes, but their numbers were unsustainable, given a white minority totalling barely 200,000. More than 20,000 guerrillas were killed.

Smith tried to create a power-sharing government, led by Bishop Abel Muzorewa, in "Zimbabwe-Rhodesia" in June 1979, but nobody recognised it. The new British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, called a constitutional conference in London at the end of the year. After 14 weeks a deal was done and a free election was held in March 1980, won by Mugabe.

To general amazement, Walls stayed on to integrate the victorious guerrillas into a new Zimbabwean army. But Mugabe, fearing assassination, soon accused him of treachery. The following dialogue was recorded as early as 17 March 1980. Mugabe: "Why are your men trying to kill me?" Walls: "If they were my men you would be dead." In less than six months Walls retired to the Eastern Cape province of South Africa.

His wife, Eunice, three daughters and a son survive him.

Picture Of The Day

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Picture Of The Day

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Saturday, July 24, 2010

A new journalism on the horizon

A newspaper

The delivery of news is rapidly changing

As people find new ways to access news in a post-print world, so the demands on those that deliver it is changing, says Andrew Marr, and this new media age could bring with it a better, more rigorous kind of journalism.

The winds of media revolution are gusting fiercely.

In the past few days we have the Guardian's estimate of a near 90% drop in the online readership of its rival, the Times, since the pay wall went up; and Amazon's announcement that sales of digital books for its e-reader Kindle are outstripping hardback books in the US, at the rate of 143 e-books for every 100 hardbacks over the past three months.

I just wanted to follow up my earlier "conversion confession" on this site.

These two whirling straws were given perfect context at a seminar on Tuesday by John Warnock, co-founder of Adobe and a fabled figure in the Silicon Valley story. Speaking at Nottingham University's computer science school, he predicted a cascade of new iPad-like tablets in many sizes arriving by the end of this year, producing turmoil for cinemas (which will mostly go), bookshops (ditto), and broadcasters.

Hollywood now gets just 15% of its revenue from cinema releases, while newspaper publishers find their traditional strengths - expensive printing plants and sophisticated distribution chains - have become merely costs.

Book publishers ask what they bring to the new party. A public has emerged which doesn't watch traditional sequential television, or even understands the notion of "channels".

I've just come back from Washington where I was doing interviews with grandee journalists and historians in the wood-panelled magnificence of the city's National Press Club.

But downstairs, in the coffee bar, everyone seemed to reading on iPads and phones. Getting into the lift and returning to street level felt like time-travelling, from the Age of the Press, to tablet-world.

But getting back to the big question, which is the future for journalism, two things struck me. The first is that I've started to spend quite a lot on buying online reading material, from books and magazines to news material; and that the quality's pin-sharp, easy on the eye and addictive.

This leads me to think that perhaps Rupert Murdoch's pay wall gamble is a better bet than the Guardian figures currently suggest; but that the proposition will need to be redefined.

People pay for magazines, television channels, DVDs and endless apps. The notion that they shouldn't ever pay for news is actually quite bizarre and a historic anomaly.

I'm interested in politics, social policy, business, technology and the arts. I am not interested in sport, fashion, property, crime stories or celebrity.

In this new world, where I'm being sold new propositions, I no longer see why I should buy material I'm not interested in, just because it's been bundled up by one publisher rather than another. Am I alone? I'll pay. I'll buy. But I want to be more discriminating.

Fast food, fast news

The second thought is that journalism may be on the edge of a great new age. How good have we been, honestly, at telling the truth to the powerful? When a crisis blows up, or a problem of deep complexity has to be confronted, few reporters have the specialist knowledge or time to really confront government, or a company.

Further, the daily competition for newness - always on to the next story, the next headline - means the media's attention span has been limited. Too rarely do we return to stories that have "faded away" and ask, what happened next?

Our appetite for long-term campaigning and focus fritters away. Fast news has had the same effect on our minds as fast food has had on our physiques.

The next media age may be differently configured. We may have a group of very large "aggregators" bringing busy people the most important new news of the day, rather as now, but there will be fewer of them.

But underneath that, we will have large numbers of specialist news sites - for specific companies or sectors, for different environmental issues, for overseas crises - which bring together journalists, academics, specialists, campaigners, professionals, lobbyists and so on. These will be where the expertise and longer-term attention span will be found.

They will pile the pressure onto the powerful, and keep asking the questions. And from time to time their work will break upwards, to the aggregators (we need a better word) and the global headlines.

Or so I hope. There's the real chance of a better kind of journalism in all this; something to comfort ourselves with as we pad to the bookshop, or head for the cinema while it's still there.

by Andrew Marr

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Facebook 500m

Unclear Energy

Toy Story 3 (D)

Great Mistakes

After inoculating several dishes with the bacterium staphylococcus, Alexander Fleming forgot to cover them up before going on holiday. On his return, one of the dishes had grown mould. Fleming observed that the bacteria around the mould were all dead, thus discovering that the mould Penicillium had antibacterial properties.

In 1492 Christopher Columbus set sail westwards intent on discovering a new route to Asia. Miscalculating the Earth's circumference meant he actually landed in America, opening up trade links between the old and new worlds.

In 1839 Charles Goodyear accidentally dropped some india rubber mixed with sulphur on to a hot stove, discovering the vulcanisation process which made possible the commercial use of rubber.

Chef George Crum invented crisps in 1853 when a customer at a restaurant in New York, returned his fries to the kitchen. In anger, Crum sliced them as thinly as possible, over-fried them and doused them in salt. The customer was delighted and the crisp was born.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Joe Sacco

A Real Spin!

We already know that we need to eat plenty of leafy greens to stay healthy, but who knew that a salad spinner itself could help save lives?

As we learn from EurekAlert, Rice University undergraduates Lila Kerr and Lauren Theis were presented with an assignment in their Introduction to Bioengineering and World Health class. As Theis explains:

"We were essentially told we need to find a way to diagnose anemia without power, without it being very costly and with a portable device."

In a solution short on cost but long on ingenuity, the duo modified a basic, every day salad spinner into an easy to use and transport centrifuge that successfully separates blood to allow diagnosis of anemia with no electricity. The device costs about $30, can process 30 individual 15 microliter blood samples at a time, and can separate blood into its component red cells and plasma in about 20 minutes.

"Sally Centrifuge," as the innovation has been dubbed by its creators, is undergoing a series of field tests this summer in places that will benefit from the availability of effective but low-tech solutions and adaptations. As part of Rice University's Beyond Traditional Borders (BTB), a global health initiative focused primarily on developing countries, Kerr and Theis are traveling along with their device to Ecuador, Swaziland and Malawi, where rural clinics will provide real-world testing of the surprising diagnostic tool.

In rural, under-served and impoverished parts of the world, a positive diagnosis for anemia is a critically important clue when looking for other health problems such as malnutrition, or serious chronic infectious diseases such as malaria and HIV/AIDS. Until now, blood samples taken in the field would have to be sent to a distant location complete with expensive laboratory centrifuges and electricity, while patients would be left waiting for the results — a lapse in time that can be deadly. Being able to diagnose the condition in real time with "Sally Centrifuge" would allow appropriate treatment to begin before before an illness progresses and a patient's condition deteriorates too drastically.

Maria Oden, engineering professor and co-adviser to the team, reflects on how successfully the two young women approached the assignment by providing something that may literally save lives as it is brought to bear on pressing health challenges in rural and economically under-developed regions of the world:

"The students really did an amazing job of taking very simple, low-cost materials and creating a device their research shows correlates nicely with hematocrit levels in the blood. Many of the patients seen in developing world clinics are anemic, and it's a severe health problem. Being able to diagnose it with no power, with a device that's extremely lightweight, is very valuable."

Arizona Law: Thu 29 July 2010

The intersection of 43rd Avenue and Thomas Road on the west side of Phoenix is lined with the same monotonous range of petrol stations, fast-food outlets, pharmacies and clothes stores that you'll find in any modern city in America's heartlands. It is distinguished only by the exceptionally mundane.

Look closer, though, and a disturbing pattern emerges. Here is a real estate office that is shuttered and empty, here a panaderia – a bread shop – that has closed, and next door to that, a children's clothes store also shut. Across the road a cellphone outlet is boarded up and a large grocery store has vanished. A Mexican restaurant still has its sign proudly boasting "Tacos Since 1975", but there are no tacos being made here any more. A rival restaurant nearby, Marly's Mexican Food, has a sign saying "Drive Thru Open", yet the building has been stripped bare. A handwritten note in the front entrance says "Se cierra el negocio porque nos mudamos de estado" – the restaurant is closed because we've moved out of the state.

It's as if the whole area is turning into a tourist ghost town, for which the west is renowned. But this is not supposed to be a ghost town. This is bustling Phoenix, capital of Arizona and one of America's fastest growing and most dynamic metropolises.

Why this is going on is the question put to Sergio Diaz, the owner of an English language school next to Marly's restaurant, where a room full of young students are practising English verbs. "We've been in business since 2000," Diaz says. "At the end of this month we are going to close."

"My students are about 90% undocumented," he says, referring to the largely Mexican illegal immigrants who attend his school. "Three months ago we'd have up to 200 students every day; now there are only 15. They are all leaving, or preparing to leave."

Diaz says his clients are fleeing a controversial new immigration law that comes into effect throughout Arizona on 29 July. SB 1070 amounts to the harshest crackdown against undocumented immigrants that has been made in any part of the US for a generation. It has put Arizona in the centre of a nationwide foment about immigration that is pitting individual states against the Obama administration, whites against Hispanics.

At the heart of the debate are the 12 million or so illegal immigrants, most of them Mexican, who already live and work in the US, about 500,000 of them in Arizona. Over the past few decades they have become a fixture of American life, building homes and families and carrying out the low-paid farm work that few US citizens are prepared to do.

They have been largely tolerated, existing just below the surface of American life, sending their children to school, paying taxes and only coming into contact with police if they committed serious crimes. Immigration violations were generally treated as a civilian, rather than a criminal matter.

But in recent months, the mood has hardened, and nowhere more so than in Arizona, whose border with Mexico is the busiest crossing point for undocumented Mexicans. Anger towards them has increased in the wake of highly publicised incidents linked to the burgeoning drug wars on the Mexican side of the border, including the shooting of an Arizonan police officer in April.

Politicians have responded to demands for the border to be strengthened and for more deportations, culminating in SB 1070. The legislation, in effect, turns Arizona's undocumented residents into criminals, handing responsibility for enforcement from immigration officers to the police. Anyone without proper papers who comes into contact with the police – be it for something as minor as a broken brake light – can have their documents checked if police suspect them of being illegal immigrants, and find themselves rapidly deported. Anyone who helps an undocumented person, whether by housing them or offering them work or even feeding them or giving them a lift, can also find themselves in trouble.

Lydia Guzman, a community worker with Somos America, a coalition of Hispanic groups in Phoenix, says the mood among Latino families has changed over the past two months, ahead of the law coming into effect: "Panic has set in."

The mood has changed, too, among white Americans, who have interpreted the increasingly aggressive language used by politicians as a green light to express their own prejudices. Incidents of harassment towards undocumented Latinos from employers, landlords and neighbours have increased. Should the victims protest, they are frequently taunted with the refrain: "So what are you going to do about it, tell the police?"

The hostility has reached such a level that Guzman deploys an extreme metaphor, saying that a "Gestapo community" is in the making.

"Just last week, a family told us that the people next door, who they'd known for 10 years, had reported them to the police because their dog was barking too much. The father was arrested in front of his three young kids."

With two weeks still to go before SB 1070 becomes a reality, thousands of families are already leaving Arizona. Sandra Soto packed her bags last week, quitting the city where she's lived for 20 years and relocating to New Mexico. She, her husband and two of her three children are legal US residents; only the third child is undocumented, but this was enough to make her want to leave.

Besides, she says the atmosphere has become too unpleasant. "It doesn't matter that I'm legal. The first thing I'm asked these days is to show my papers. Just because my skin is a little dark, that I'm Hispanic. That's all they see."

Stephanie, who attends Puente, a Hispanic community group, has an extended family of some 20 or 30 people. Many are legal, some aren't. Recently, one of her nieces was taken in by immigration officials and held in custody for a week. A nephew who has lived in Phoenix since infancy was deported last month to Mexico, a country he barely knows.

"We have followed every single rule in this city to show that we can be good citizens here. I've worked two jobs at a time, cleaning hotels by day and at night – some of the hardest work there is. Yet they say we are trying to rob them."

Opinion polls have shown that more than two-thirds of Arizonans are in favour of the new law. White voters have justified the clampdown on the grounds that illegal immigrants have caused a violent crime wave, when in fact, outside the largely self-contained crime committed by Mexican drug cartels against themselves, the state is enjoying a period of relatively little criminality. It is also said that illegal immigrants are pouring over the border in record numbers, though in reality the rate peaked 10 years ago.

"They are taking our jobs" is another key assumption. But as research by the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University has shown, undocumented immigrants create jobs and support services through the taxes they pay on wages and purchases.

Take schools. Precise numbers won't be known until the start of the new school year, but there is already mounting evidence that large numbers of Hispanic families are removing their children from Phoenix schools in preparation for leaving.

Falling school rolls will mean a collapse in education funding, because money follows the child. In turn, this will hit the quality of education for everybody's children, white Americans included.

Talent is also being squandered. Silvia Rodriguez, 23, has been offered a place at Harvard next year to study arts and education. She has lived in Phoenix since she was two, but because she lacks legal resident status she is not eligible for funding and has to raise the fees privately.

She had been successful at raising the money through foundations and fundraisers, but a few weeks ago support suddenly dried up. "People are afraid because under the law you cannot provide aid to somebody who is undocumented," she says. She now fears that she will be unable to find the $23,000 she still needs, and will have to forego the chance of studying at America's pre-eminent academic institution.

All these examples suggest that by adopting SB 1070, Arizona is economically shooting itself in the foot. But there are others who oppose the new law for reasons more fundamental than self-interest.

Bobbie, a white American from Ohio, believes that it is depriving Americans of the very freedom that made their country great.

For the past 11 years, Bobbie has been married to Roberto [not his real name] from Oaxaca, with whom she has two children, both of whom are also US citizens. Roberto is undocumented. Last year, he was picked up in a raid on his workplace in Phoenix and deported back to Mexico.

Then last July, desperate to be reunited with his family, he began the long and perilous walk across the Mexican border into Arizona. He walked in the searing heat for four days without water. When Bobbie didn't hear from him she presumed him dead.

"I prayed and I prayed. I lit candles over his photograph, and prayed some more," she says. And then he called and said he had made it across. Bobbie brought him back to Phoenix and he has been living back with his family ever since. But it is only a half-existence now.

"He's like a ghost here. He is scared. We don't go to the shops, we don't go on family outings. When the new law comes in I am going to have to hide him in the back seat of my car and smuggle him to work."

Ed Pilkington hears from a woman afraid that her husband may be deported in the crackdown on illegal immigration in Arizona Link to this audio

Bobbie, who has lived in Phoenix for 31 years, is now saving up money to leave Arizona for Las Vegas or Florida. She sees what is happening as a violation of her rights as an American. "They are telling me who I can and cannot marry. My kids are American, yet they look Hispanic, so are they going to be pulled over and questioned too? It feels like I'm no longer in America."

Autumn Rose, Bobbie and Roberto's American-born daughter, aged nine, enters the conversation. "When my dad went away I felt he would never come back, but when he did it was like a miracle," she says. Then she addresses herself to Bobbie and says: "If he goes away again I want to go with him. I don't care if you say no ... I will go with him to protect him."

The Mapuche Nation

Align Centre

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Los Kjarkas

18th Of July...

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Brains & Beauty

Implications Of Potential Israeli Strike on Iran

Israeli Military Strike on Iran Will Lead to a Protracted War and Will Not Solve Nuclear Crisis

The potential for an Israeli military strike on Iran over its nuclear programme has grown sharply, but its consequences would be devastating and would lead to a long war, warns a Paul Rogers in his report “Military Action Against Iran: Impact and Effects”.* The study follows Israeli reports that Syria is manufacturing Iranian M-600 missiles for Hezbollah, the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu calling Iran “the ultimate terrorist threat” and saying it was a mistake to think Iran’s nuclear ambitions could be contained, and a call from the United Arab Emirates Ambassador in Washington for a military strike on Iran.

The report builds on Rogers' briefing, "Iran: Consequences of a War" (2006), and analyses recent developments, arguing that Israel is now fully capable of attacking Iran as it has deployed many new systems including US-built long-range strike aircraft and armed drones.

The report outlines the likely shape of an Israeli strike, saying it would:

  • Be focused not only on destroying ‘military real estate’ – nuclear and missile targets - but also would hit factories and research centres, and even university laboratories, in order to do as much damage as possible to the Iranian expertise that underpins the programme.
  • Would not be limited to remote bases but would involve the direct bombing of targets in Tehran. It would probably include attempts to kill those technocrats who manage Iran’s nuclear and missile programmes.
  • Be widely viewed across the Middle East as having been undertaken with the knowledge, approval and assistance of the United States, even if carried out solely by Israel.

Professor Rogers says that, “There would be many civilian casualties, both directly among people working on Iran’s nuclear and missile programmes, but also their families as their living quarters were hit, and secretaries, cleaners, labourers and other staff in factories, research stations and university departments.”

While much damage would be done to Iran’s nuclear and missile programmes, it would increase Iranian political unity, making the Ahmadinejad regime more stable.

Iran would be able to respond in many ways, argues the report, including:

  • Withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and immediate action to develop nuclear weapons to deter further attacks. Such work would use deeply-buried facilities that are reported to be under construction.
  • A series of actions aimed at Israel as well as targeting the United States and its western partners including:

• missile attacks on Israel;

• actions to cause a sharp rise in oil prices by closing the Straits of Hormuz;

• paramilitary and/or missile attacks on western Gulf oil production, processing and transportation facilities;

• strong support for paramilitary groups in Iraq and Afghanistan opposing western involvement.

Iran might not respond with military action immediately, but its greatest priority would be to move as fast as possible to developing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. The implications of this for international security are huge, according to Professor Rogers:

“An Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would almost certainly be the beginning of a long-term process of regular Israeli air strikes to further prevent the development of nuclear weapons and medium-range missiles. Iranian responses would also be long-term, ushering in a lengthy war with global as well as regional implications.”

The report concludes that “the consequences of a military attack on Iran are so serious that they should not be encouraged in any shape or form. However difficult, other ways must be found to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis.”

* Note: Months before the Iraq War in 2003, Oxford Research Group published a report, “Iraq: Consequences of a War”, also by Professor Paul Rogers, that warned of high civilian casualties, the development of an insurgency, increased support for al-Qaida and widespread anti-Americanism, if the war went ahead.

So Much Fun...!


A young girl
puts her name on the missile
to say hello,
this is from me ...

Soldiers usually do this ...

Her handwriting is very beautiful,
she holds the pen
very carefully,
like a knife ...

Other words say
With Love ...

Mother looks on,
she´s relieved,
happy to have turned fear
into delight ...

This is magic being prepared ...

What fun this is,
let´s take a picture,
let´s remember this moment
for years to come ...

There they go,
the smiles ...

As the missile flies
in no one´s sky
does the air
feel her touch?

There they go, here they come ...

As the missile
slices someone open
do they read
her lovely name?

Do they feel the fun
going in?

My hello is your goodbye,
my smile is your cry,
I´ve got a better
name than you ...

by Chris Gutkind

Green Lantern Is Comming...

Align Centre

Poem Of The Day


Here´s a boat that cannot float.
Here´s a queue that cannot vote.
Here´s a line you cannot quote.
Here´s a deal you cannot note...
and here´s a sacrificial goat,
here´s a cut, here´s a throat,
here´s a drawbridge, here´s a moat...
What´s your hurry? Here´s your coat.

By Carol Ann Duffy

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Running Of The Bulls


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Friday, July 09, 2010

Too Many Chiefs

KIM JONG IL, the North Korean dictator, is not normally a trendsetter. But in one area he is clearly leading the pack: job-title inflation. Mr Kim has 1,200 official titles, including, roughly translated, guardian deity of the planet, ever-victorious general, lodestar of the 21st century, supreme commander at the forefront of the struggle against imperialism and the United States, eternal bosom of hot love and greatest man who ever lived.

When it comes to job titles, we live in an age of rampant inflation. Everybody you come across seems to be a chief or president of some variety. Title inflation is producing its own vocabulary: “uptitling” and “title-fluffing”. It is also producing technological aids. One website provides a simple formula: just take your job title, mix in a few grand words, such as “global”, “interface” and “customer”, and hey presto.

The rot starts at the top. Not that long ago companies had just two or three “chief” whatnots. Now they have dozens, collectively called the “c-suite”. A few have more than one chief executive officer; CB Richard Ellis, a property-services firm, has four. A growing number have chiefs for almost everything from knowledge to diversity. Southwest Airlines has a chief Twitter officer. Coca-Cola and Marriott have chief blogging officers. Kodak has one of those too, along with a chief listening officer.

Even so, chiefs are relatively rare compared with presidents and their various declensions (vice-, assistant-, etc). Almost everybody in banking from the receptionist upwards is a president of some sort. The number of members of LinkedIn, a professional network, with the title vice-president grew 426% faster than the membership of the site as a whole in 2005-09. The inflation rate for presidents was 312% and for chiefs a mere 275%.

Title-fluffing is as rampant among the indians as among the chiefs. America’s International Association of Administrative Professionals—formerly the National Secretaries Association—reports that it has more than 500 job-titles under its umbrella, ranging from front-office co-ordinator to electronic-document specialist. Paper boys are “media distribution officers”. Binmen are “recycling officers”. Lavatory cleaners are “sanitation consultants”. Sandwich-makers at Subway have the phrase “sandwich artist” emblazoned on their lapels. Even the normally linguistically pure French have got in on the act: cleaning ladies are becoming “techniciennes de surface” (surface technicians).

What is going on here? The most immediate explanation is the economic downturn: bosses are doling out ever fancier titles as a substitute for pay raises and bonuses. But there are also structural reasons for the trend. The most basic is the growing complexity of businesses. Many not only have presidents and vice-presidents for this or that product line, but also presidents and vice-presidents for various regions. Put the two together and you have a recipe for ever-longer business cards: vice-president for photocopiers Asia-Pacific, for example.

The cult of flexibility is also inflationary. The fashion for flattening hierarchies has had the paradoxical effect of multiplying meaningless job titles. Workers crave important-sounding titles to give them the illusion of ascending the ranks. Managers who no longer have anyone to manage are fobbed off with inflated titles, much as superannuated politicians are made Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster or Lord President of the Council. Everybody, from the executive suite downward, wants to fluff up their résumé as a hedge against being sacked.

Firms also use fancy job titles to signal that they are au fait with the latest fashion. The fad for greenery is producing legions of chief sustainability officers and green ambassadors. BP’s travails will undoubtedly have the same effect: we can expect a bull market in chief safety officers and chief apology officers.

The American technology sector has been a champion of title inflation. It has created all sorts of newfangled jobs that have to be given names, and it is also full of linguistically challenged geeks who have a taste for “humorous” titles. Steve Jobs calls himself “chief know it all”. Jerry Yang and David Filo, the founders of Yahoo!, call themselves “chief Yahoos”. Thousands of IT types dub themselves things like (chief) scrum master, guru, evangelist or, a particular favourite at the moment, ninja.

But leadership in title inflation, as in so much else, is passing to the developing world, particularly India and China. Both countries have a longstanding obsession with hierarchy (fancy job titles can be the key to getting a bride as well as the admiration of your friends). They also have tight labour markets. The result is an explosion of titles. Companies have taken to creating baffling jobs such as “outbound specialist”. They have also taken to staging public celebrations of promotions from, say, assistant deputy director to principal assistant deputy director.

Inflated benefits, understated drawbacks

Does any of this matter? Title inflation clearly does violence to the language. But isn’t that par for the course in the corporate world? And isn’t it a small price to pay for corporate harmony? The snag is that the familiar problems of monetary inflation apply to job-title inflation as well. The benefits of giving people a fancy new title are usually short-lived. The harm is long-lasting. People become cynical about their monikers (particularly when they are given in lieu of pay rises). Organisations become more Ruritanian. The job market becomes more opaque. How do you work out the going rate for “vision controller of multiplatform and portfolio” (the BBC)? Or a “manager of futuring and innovation-based strategies” (the American Cancer Society)?

And, far from providing people with more security, fancy titles can often make them more expendable. Companies might hesitate before sacking an IT adviser. But what about a chief scrum master? The essence of inflation, after all, is that it devalues everything that it touches.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Friday, July 02, 2010

Planning For The Sequel

“TO INFINITY and beyond!” Buzz Lightyear’s memorable if nonsensical phrase has been echoing around playgrounds ever since Pixar introduced the space ranger to the world in “Toy Story” in 1995. It will echo with renewed vigour this week when Pixar releases the third instalment. There is every reason to expect that three will be as successful as one and two—and Pixar will continue to mint money for its parent company, Walt Disney.

Pixar has succeeded as well as anyone in mastering the art of creativity. The company has produced one animated hit after another—including “Finding Nemo”, “Cars” and, a particular favourite of this columnist for its enthusiasm for unbridled individualism, “The Incredibles”. Rather than being crushed by Disney, as many feared, Pixar has reinvigorated its parent company.

But hit machines can run out of steam. Pixar’s founding fathers cannot go on for ever. Ed Catmull, the firm’s president, is 65, and John Lasseter, its chief creative officer, is 53, which makes him ancient by Hollywood standards. Creativity is hard enough to sustain for individuals, let alone organisations. Business history is littered with the corpses of corporate Icaruses that rose heavenwards on the wings of creativity only to plunge to the ground. That is a worry not just for Pixar but for the whole Disney empire: Mr Catmull doubles as head of Disney Animation Studios and Mr Lasseter is chief creative officer for both businesses.

How likely is it that Pixar will be able to escape that fate? The company has one important thing on its side: planning. Messrs Catmull and Lassetter spent many of their formative years watching Icaruses fall to earth from their base near Silicon Valley. Even Apple almost expired before begging Steve Jobs to return to the company. The pair consequently did everything that they could to build a machine that could outlast them—and continue churning out animated characters for decades to come.

Pixar’s approach to creativity is striking for two reasons. The first is that the company puts people before projects. Most Hollywood studios start by hunting down promising ideas and then hire creative teams to turn them into films. The projects dictate whom they hire. Pixar starts by bringing in creative people and then encourages them to generate ideas. One of its most successful recruits has been Brad Bird, who has presided over two Oscar-winning feature films, “The Incredibles” (in which he also provided a character’s voice) and “Ratatouille”.

The second is that the company devotes a lot of effort to getting people to work together. In most companies, people collaborate on specific projects, but pay little attention to what’s going on elsewhere in the business. Pixar, however, tries to foster a sense of collective responsibility among its 1,200 staff. Employees show unfinished work to one another in daily meetings, so get used to giving and receiving constructive criticism. And a small “brain trust” of top executives reviews films in the works.

Pixar got the inspiration for this system from a surprising place—Toyota and its method of “lean production”. For decades Toyota has solicited constant feedback from workers on its production lines to prevent flaws. Pixar wants to do the same with producing cartoon characters. This system of constant feedback is designed to bring problems to the surface before they mutate into crises, and to provide creative teams with a source of inspiration. Directors are not obliged to act on the feedback they receive from others, but when they do the results can be impressive. Peer review certainly lifted “Up”, a magical Pixar movie that became the studio’s highest-grossing picture at the box office after “Finding Nemo”. It helped produce the quirky storyline of an old man and a boy who fly to South America in a house supported by a bunch of balloons.

Pixar also obliges its teams to conduct formal post mortems once their films are complete. In lesser hands this might degenerate into a predictable Hollywood frenzy of backslapping and air-kissing. But Pixar demands that each review identify at least five things that did not go well in the film, as well as five that did.

And the winner is…

None of this can guarantee Pixar’s long-term success. Creative organisations depend to a striking extent on the X-factor provided by charismatic leaders such as Messrs Catmull and Lasseter. Creativity depends on serendipity as much as planning: Pixar itself started life making computer parts and only dabbled in animation as a sideline. Success is a great killer of innovation: there is an ever greater danger that, as Pixar’s list of blockbusters lengthens, its “creatives” will take ever fewer risks and its managers will become ever more complacent (as happened, by the way, at Toyota). Too much planning can alienate the prickly eccentrics who sometimes drive the creative process. It is worth remembering that Disney went into a long decline because its emphasis on doing things the Disney way alienated many creative people. But on the other hand not even the most robust production systems can eliminate risk: the second “Toy Story” film had to go through a set of wrenching revisions at high speed after it went too far off the rails, in spite of the studio’s early-warning systems.

Managing creativity involves a series of difficult balancing acts: giving people the freedom to come up with new ideas but making sure that they operate within an overall structure, creating a powerful corporate culture but making sure that it is not too stifling. Few organisations can get this balancing act right in the long term—particularly as the formula can change over time.

But Pixar’s attempt to solve this problem is nevertheless impressive. The company’s enthusiasm for thinking ahead is admirable. Even more admirable is its willingness to look to a car company for inspiration. For a culture as inward-looking as Hollywood’s, that is a remarkable piece of creative thinking.